Thursday, July 7, 2011

Xanadu by the sea

The Royal Pavilion seen from the park and gardens
In 1783, George Augustus Frederick, Prince of Wales and son of King George III first visited the seaside town of Brighton, on the English Channel. He had just turned 21, obtained an annual income that allowed him to live a luxurious and licentious lifestyle, and at Brighton he found he could indulge himself away from the disapproving eyes of his dour and somewhat crazy father.

He bought a modest farmhouse a short walk from the pebbled beach, and as the years passed he improved upon the property. In 1815 he engaged the architect and designer John Nash, who turned the modest Sussex farmhouse into an extravagant, almost hallucinogenic, sprawling fantasy palace known today as the Royal Pavilion at Brighton.

In the midst of the town of modest attached houses and pubs, pale stucco turrets, minarets and bulging onion domes rise over a green lawn and winding, flower-filled gardens. The exterior style is an amalgam of Saraceno-Indo-Islamic Arabian Nights on acid. The interior is one of the finest and most overblown example of Nineteenth Century Chinoiserie ever created.

You enter the Pavilion through long and low galleries with hand-painted Chinese wallpaper, and though the appointments and trim are more extravagant than almost anything you'll ever seen, the delicacy and proportion sooth your senses and gently usher you into the fantasy land Nash has created.

And then you enter the Banqueting Hall. It's a huge domed room encrusted with decor - the walls are painted with Chinese scenes, the windows crested with pelmets fashioned to resemble writhing dragons; great banana leaves of bronze and gilt top the dome and from them a huge silver-gilt dragon bearing a crystal chandelier is suspended.

Click to "embiggen"
For me, it immediately evoked the exotic and Orientalesque interiors of magnificent 20th Century movie palaces like Seattle's Fifth Avenue Theatre or the St. Louis and Detroit twin Fox Theatres - but it was even more than these. For one thing, the Royal Pavilion is one hundred years older than any of these. And further, it was built not as a commercial palace, but for the pleasure of one man and his friends.

Tourists are not allowed to take photos of the interior, so you'll have to be content with this contemporary print of the Banqueting Hall.

Nash's designs were state of the art. The building was built with the latest technological advances - a frame of iron clad in stucco was innovative and allowed for the fanciful domes and shapes of the building. Even the kitchens were designed with the latest - a specially engineered contraption used the power of the wind to turn dozens of trussed birds roasting on spits. Nash allowed the kitchen slaveys a bit of fancy, too - the cast-iron columns in the room are topped with palm leaves, as though trees are holding up the high ceilings.

Kitchen at the Brighton Pavilion (sorry, no larger resolution)
The Prince of Wales - known as "Prinny" - needed such a huge kitchen to support the amount of entertaining he did. The Banquet Hall  is set for thirty places, and a sample menu on display shows one hundred different dishes that might be served at a single meal. Prinny managed to spend his way through the equivalent of millions of pounds, incurring huge debts that outraged his father.In 1810, George III's ill health and mental instability caused Parliament to pass a bill allowing the Prince of Wales to serve as Prince Regent in his stead.

The Prince Regent, painted by Thomas Lawrence, circa 1816
Handsome, fashionable, and dashing as a young man, by the time his father died and Prinny ascended the throne as king in 1820, he was obese and suffered so badly from gout and dropsy that a special private suite was made up for him on the ground floor of the house so he wouldn't have to climb stairs. The tour takes you through these rooms, which seem a little sad. He died in 1830, at the age of 58 - a prime example of how bad habits take a toll even on the most fortunate of us.

The upper floors include the suite Queen Victoria used the few times she came to Brighton. You can even see her maid's bedroom and the royal commode. There are also suites that housed George IV's brothers, the Dukes of York and Clarence, decorated in a searingly vivid chrome yellow, with dragon-patterned panels.

Victoria disliked Prinny's elaborate fantasy, finding it vulgar and not a good place to raise children. In 1850 she sold the building to the City of Brighton at a cut-rate price - after stripping it of most of its furnishings and fixtures.

The town used it as assembly rooms - no doubt the tourism trade provided a good market for meetings, ballrooms and the like. King George IV's fantasy became the first modern example of a municipally owned event facility.

As we toured the upper rooms we also learned of an odd, paradoxical yet fascinating episode in the history of the Pavilion. Between 1914 and 1916, at the height of the First World War, the City of Brighton provided housing for military hospitals in municipal buildings like schools and exhibit halls, and also the Royal Pavilion. The Royal Pavilion became a ward serving wounded troops from the Indian Corps - soldiers from Britain's colonies in India. Over 4000 men were treated there during this time.

Another view from the garden
One has to wonder what these men now transplanted to Britain's chilly seashore must have thought when awakening in the extravagant, ridiculously faux-Hindoo domed palace. Was it an oddly comforting taste of the architecture of home for them? Or a bizarre cartoonish travesty? 

Painting by C C H Burleigh showing the Music Room used as a ward

You can see a Flickr set of images of the Brighton Indian Military Hospital at this website HERE. A nice article about those days is HERE.

After the Second World War, the City began an effort to restore the Pavilion. Queen Elizabeth II returned on loan much of the furnishings that Victoria had removed. Today, the house is beautifully preserved and conservators are trying to recreate its original furnishings and decor.

If you're interested in interior design; a fan of chinoiserie, or interested in seeing what might have been the first true fantasy-land environment, you'll love a visit to the Royal Pavilion at Brighton.


ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

I'll bet they thought, "Hurray! Nobody is shooting at me!"

Karen S. said...

okay I want that garden ...lovely photos thanks so much, for the interesting story as well!